Irregular sleep patterns can release endocannabinoids and induce the munchies in a similar way that cannabis does. A randomized crossover study indicated that losing sleep disrupts the satiety hormone, the “feeling full” hormone. Brain chemistry can explain how both the munchies and how sleep deprivation may cause similar eating patterns.
Erin Hanlon led a team of researchers at the University of Chicago to figure out what causes late night snacking.
Hanlon and her team looked at 14 young men and women and their sleep patterns. They found that sleep deprivation unsettles hormone levels and affects how much we snack. In the past, obesity has been linked to sleep deprivation, but the reasons are hazy. Hanlon’s team analyzed what snacks men and women choose when they can’t sleep.
“Sleep curtailment results in stimulation of hunger and food intake that exceeds the energy cost of extended wakefulness, suggesting the involvement of reward mechanisms,” researchers wrote. “The current study tested the hypothesis that sleep restriction is associated with activation of the endocannabinoid (eCB) system, a key component of hedonic pathways involved in modulating appetite and food intake.”
Participants were observed for two four-day sessions. They slept either a healthy 7.5 hours or a soul-draining 4 hours and 11 minutes each night. Every night, the volunteers ate identical meals at 9 a.m. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. All volunteers ate identical meals, so that nothing affected their appetite. For the final leg of the study, volunteers were offered a cornucopia of desserts and snacks. The sleep-deprived binged on fatty foods even after eating a meal that contained 90 percent of their daily calorie intake. On average, sleepy volunteers consumed 300 calories in high-fat foods.
Sleepy volunteers chose snacks with nearly twice as much fat than snacks chosen by rested volunteers.
To understand why sleep deprivation affects eating habits, you have to look at elsewhere. Sleep loss can disrupt hormones, causing low leptin and high ghrelin levels. Leptin is the satiety hormone, which tells our brain when we’re full. Ghrelin is the munchie hormone, the enzyme produced in the stomach that stimulates appetite.
Hanlon looked at a number of endocannabinoids, and the levels before and after losing sleep. One cannabinoid, 2-AG, stood out. 2-AG is a reward chemical that intensifies pleasure when we eat sweet and salty foods. In rested volunteers, levels of 2-AG rose in the morning, but declined shortly after. In sleeping volunteers, levels of 2-AG rose 33 percent, and stayed at high levels all day until about 9 p.m.
“We know that marijuana activates the endocannabinoid system and causes people to overeat when they are not hungry, and they normally eat yummy sweet and fatty foods,” Hanlon said. “Sleep restriction may cause overeating by acting in the same manner.”
Most avid stoners have adopted their own methods for curtailing the munchies such as rearranging eating times or putting snacks out of sight and out of mind. All this work could be in vain, however, if you aren’t giving yourself regular and sufficient sleep. On a side note, obesity and sleep disorders are a vicious cycle, one leads to breathing problems which leads to restless nights.
Tamas Horvath explained how cannabis causes the munchies. He study cannabis smokers at Yale University to understand the CB1R receptor.
“By observing how the appetite center of the brain responds to marijuana, we were able to see what drives the hunger brought about by cannabis and how that same mechanism that normally turns off feeding becomes a driver of eating. It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead,” Horvath said.
Do you get the munchies when enjoying cannabis?